Latino Credit Union

Member service representative Briseida Fajardo speaks Spanish while helping a client at Lower Valley Credit Union in Sunnyside, Wash., Thursday, March 10, 2016. Fajardo said she is thankful she is bilingual and can use both Spanish and English at her work. (SOFIA JARAMILLO/Yakima Herald-Republic)

SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Nearly all the staff members at the Lower Valley Credit Union are bilingual.

For Adelaida Ramos, a 31-year-old farm worker from Mabton, that’s important. Although she can speak English, it is her second language.

“I feel more comfortable speaking Spanish when it comes to my money and accounts,” she said in English.

Suzy Fonseca, the credit union’s CEO, said the shared life experience of her staff has attracted Latino customers to the Sunnyside-based credit union.

Many staff members have had family who have worked in the fields or struggled to pay off high-interest payday loans, she said.

“When you’re able to sit and share that type of background, that’s where you build your loyalty and trust,” Fonseca said.

That relationship-based approach has enabled the credit union, which also has branches in Grandview and Prosser, to serve the region’s Latinos, a group that traditionally has avoided financial institutions.

Earlier this year, Lower Valley Credit Union became the first credit union in the state to earn the Juntos Avanzamos designation. The Juntos Avanzamos — Spanish for “Together We Advance” — program aims to provide a structure and standard for credit unions to serve Latino consumers, who make up a sizable population of “unbanked and underbanked,” said Pablo DeFilippi, vice president of membership and business development for the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, which runs the program.

The organization aims to provide financial education and services to low-income, urban, rural and reservation-based communities, and rolled out Juntos Avanzamos nationwide last year after seeing success in Texas.

More than 46 percent of Hispanic households nationwide either have never patronized a financial institution or have limited their bank activity to a checking or other bank account while using other alternative financial services such as payday lenders, according to 2013 data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The number of Hispanics in Washington state who are considered unbanked or underbanked is slightly lower — 39 percent — but still above the overall state rate of 21.3 percent, according to the FDIC numbers.

“That’s a huge number (of consumers) who are not seeking a financial institution for solutions to their problems,” DeFilippi said.

Programs nationwide and locally such as Bank On Yakima County, a collaborative effort of several financial institutions to promote doing business with local banks and credit unions, also attempt to tackle the problem.

While the program is aimed at all consumers, Bank On Yakima County has printed material in Spanish in hopes of drawing Latino consumers to local financial institutions.

The group said there’s more to be done.

“We have a long way to go, especially in the Spanish-speaking population,” said Elizabeth Benefiel, who was chairwoman of Bank On Yakima County for three years.

To earn the Juntos Avanzamos designation, credit unions must demonstrate efforts to provide flexible loan underwriting, affordable credit and other financial services and education to Spanish speakers.

The approach is not just about products for Latino consumers, but also about increasing financial inclusion, DeFilippi said. “It’s about how to bring this population into the financial mainstream,” he said, “and give them access to what you and I have.”

Financial inclusion has been a focus for Fonseca since she took over as Lower Valley Credit Union CEO five years ago.

Like many of the credit union’s customers, she came from a family of farm workers. She started at the credit union 18 years ago as a teller, and was promoted several times before she was named CEO in 2011.

Today, the credit union provides a wide range of services to provide Latinos loans and other lines of credit, such as loans that can be approved with a tax identification number rather than a Social Security number. The credit union also approves loans — regardless of credit score — for as little as a few hundred dollars, a godsend for farm workers out of work during the winter months.

To mitigate risk, the loans have a slightly higher interest rate — typically 8 to 9 percent. While high for most bank consumers, that rate is much lower than the double-digit interest rates that payday lenders charge.

Fonseca said she knows there’s still a reluctance among financial institutions to provide such products, but she tries to focus on the long-term benefits.

“I don’t think people have opened their eyes to the (buying) power” that Latino consumers can offer, she said.

Lower Valley Credit Union and others with Juntos Avanzamos have not only tapped into a market that has been abused by the financial marketplace, but also are helping these consumers reach financial goals from buying a reliable car to owning a home, said DeFilippi.

“Those are asset-building activities everyone should have access to,” he said.

Lower Valley Credit Union’s work is getting attention from other credit unions across the country. Fonseca said she is taking calls from other credit unions that are seeking to serve Latino consumers and to secure the Juntos Avanzamos designation.

And Fonseca knows there’s plenty for her credit union still to do: “We’re just on the tip of the iceberg.”

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